I’ve noticed that when parents ask me what to do about their toddler throwing food or dumping water, there’s usually a key respectful care practice they’re missing: pay attention.
Child specialist Magda Gerber encouraged parents to give infants and toddlers our focused attention at mealtimes whenever possible, beginning with breast or bottle feedings. As a parent and a parent-child class facilitator, over the years I’ve found Magda’s guidance beneficial for several fundamental reasons:
1. Paying attention helps us to spot testing behaviors early and gently nip them in the bud lonnnggg before we’re even close to getting annoyed or angry. As an added bonus, our calm, upbeat, early responses make testing far less interesting and therefore much rarer. Here’s how setting limits at mealtime might look:
We see signs of imminent food throwing, which will generally happen right around the time our child’s interest in eating has waned (which we’ve noticed, because we’ve been paying attention). We say to our child matter-of-factly, “I’m going to stop you from dropping that… Looks like you’re no longer interested in eating the food. Are you all finished?” Then, if our child indicates he isn’t, we might wait another moment to see if he returns to eating. If the test begins again, we can be certain he’s done. “Ah, you said you wanted more, but you are making it clear that you’re done now. I’ll help you down.”
2. Paying attention helps me to structure my day, focus and prioritize my energies (truly a godsend for a scattered person like me). As Magda wisely notes in Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect, “What an infant needs—what every human being wants – is to experience the full undivided attention of a parent or other significant person.” And then her reassuring caveat, “But nobody can pay full attention all of the time.” Here’s the basic parenting framework she recommends in her book:
“During care activities (diapering, feeding, bathing, dressing, etc.), we encourage even the tiniest infant to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient of the activities. Parents create opportunities for interaction, cooperation, intimacy and mutual enjoyment by being wholeheartedly with the infant during the time they spend together anyway.
Refueled by such unhurried, pleasurable caring experiences, infants are ready to explore their environment with only minimal intervention by adults.”
What this means is that if we only have a limited amount of time to spend with a child, connected care activities like mealtimes are one of the most productive ways to use it. Here’s an example:
In the RIE Parent-Infant and Toddler Guidance classes I facilitate, we begin doing snack time once the babies are all mobile and able to sit independently. Up to this point, my role with the children has been as a mostly passive, though responsive, observer of their play. My attention is divided between watching them and engaging with their parents. With the addition of snack time, we really begin to get to know each other. I am their fully attentive leader. I invite them to participate, always meeting them where they are, while also gently insisting they follow the rules (see a video demonstration HERE). We develop rituals and in-jokes. I have the sense that our relationship shifts dramatically to one of far more trust on their end. We bond in this 15 or 20 minute period of focused time together each week.
3. Paying attention keeps us connected, builds and deepens our parent-child relationship. My children are now 22, 18, and 13, and I only recently realized that I’m still making a point of giving them my full attention at mealtime, although it looks a bit different now. Whenever any of them wake up at our home (with one a college grad and another a college sophomore, these days are rare and even more precious) and they’re ready to get something to eat in the kitchen, I try to put down whatever I might be doing to hang with them. With their full lives, there are days when this is the only time we really connect. I might offer to make them breakfast or just watch while they make their own. I might get to hear what they did the night before (if they returned home after my bedtime) or their plans for the day. Sometimes there’s a lot of dialogue and laughter. Other times, we don’t speak much at all. That’s okay. For me this will always be prime time, and the company is enough.
“The beauty of this special kind of availability is the way it affects the older child and later the adult who was raised with it. You will find that they do not feel forced to talk. They can peacefully sit with the parent and then open up if they want to. The child does not feel manipulated.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect
I share more of my experiences implementing Magda Gerber’s approach in my books, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!) and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
(Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões on Flickr)